The Historical Geography of Transportation
Map 11 - The Transcontinental Rail Network, 1878
Grades K-2 Lesson Plan - Railroads across the Country  Map 11 Main Page 

Core Map: "Rand, McNally & Co.'s United States" in Rand McNally & Co.'s Business Atlas, (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1878). Newberry Library Call No.: Rand McNally Collection, Atlas Collection, Commercial Atlas 1878 (Printable PDF version of the Core Map)

Resources related to Map 11.
Curator's Notes for Map 11.

In this lesson students learn to read and trace transcontinental routes on a nineteenth-century railroad map of the United States.

By the end of this lesson students are expected to:

  1. find their state on the core map (if that state was in the Union by 1878).
  2. identify their home city or a nearby city on the core map.
  3. identify the Atlantic Ocean, Pacific Ocean, Mississippi River, and the Rocky Mountains on the core map.
  4. identify a transcontinental railroad route on the core map.
  5. understand how railroads helped travelers in the 1800s

Key Terms
continent, map, railroad, route, state, transcontinental railroad

computer image or overhead of the core map, a modern classroom map of the United States, paper, pencils, and coloring pencils, images of: The Bridge of the Great Rock Island Route Over the Mississippi River at Rock Island, Ill, Rock Cut, Near Aspen, On the Upper Mississippi, and selections from Western Railroad Scenes (see Resources)

One hour

Getting Started

  1. Discuss with students the origin and maker of the core map (see Curator's Notes).

  2. Ask if any students have ever ridden on a train, and if so, where. How long did the train trip take? Ask them what other kinds of transportation people use to travel away from home today.

  3. Display the core map. Explain that the map was made more than one hundred years ago and that it showed all of the railroads that existed then. Identify the symbols on the core map for the following features: railroads, state and national boundaries, oceans, rivers, mountains, and lakes.

  4. Point to a selection or all of the following place names: The capital of the students' state, the Pacific Ocean, Seattle, Chicago, the Mississippi River, Washington, D.C., New York, the Atlantic Ocean.

  5. If it appeared on the map, have the students identify their own state. If it was not yet a state, point out the old name for their state. (This applies only if you live in the Dakotas or Oklahoma. Several other modern states were still territories in 1878, but already had their modern names and boundaries.)

  6. Compare the core map briefly (for purposes of orientation) with a modern United States map. Discuss with them how the core map is different from the modern map. Direct them to differences and similarities in the kind of information shown on the map and differences and similarities is specific information shown on the map. For example, your modern classroom map may emphasize relief and may show roads instead of railroads. The names and outlines of three states (North Dakota, South Dakota and Oklahoma) are different, and there are differences in the provinces of Canada, which is called "British Possessions."

  7. Help students locate their own state (if it was in the Union by 1878) and help them find the nearest major city that appears on the map.

Developing the Lesson

  1. Explain the term "transcontinental railroad."

  2. Print and distribute paper copies of the core map to each student. Using colored markers or crayons, have students trace two transcontinental railroad routes. These routes can be of their own choosing, but they must follow the rail lines marked on the map and they must connect a city or state on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean with a city or state on the Pacific Ocean. (Alternatively, you can identify the starting and ending points of their routes, insuring that at least one of the routes passes through your home state.)

  3. If students can read and write, have them make a list of each state their transcontinental routes passes through on the way from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Otherwise, have them count the number of states their route passes through.

  4. Have the students identify and color their own state (or territorial predecessor on the map). Ask them if one of their transcontinental routes pass through it.

  5. Repeat Step 4, this time having students mark with a large dot the location of the major city on their map nearest the location of your community.

  6. Each transcontinental route should cross the Mississippi River. Show them the picture "The Bridge of the Great Rock Island Route Over the Mississippi River at Rock Island, Ill." Compare that image with "On the Upper Mississippi," which shows a river crossing made by a rope ferry. Ask the students which way of crossing the river they think would have been safer or more comfortable.

  7. Have the students trace the course of the Mississippi River on their map. For extra credit, students can identify other major rivers that their route crosses.

  8. Each transcontinental route should cross the Rocky Mountains at some point. Help students locate the Rocky Mountains on the map, and ask them to draw an "X" the point at which their routes cross the Rocky Mountains. Show them the picture "Rock Cut, Near Aspen" as an example of what it was like to pass through the Rocky Mountains by train.

  9. Display the various pictures showing scenes of Western Railroad Crossings (see Resources). Discuss with the students how the railroads made it easier for people to cross the country in the late 1800s.

Using a 1-4 scale (4=excellent, 3=well done, 2= satisfactory, 1=poor) assess student performance based on the activities in Developing the Lesson:

For 4 points, the student has correctly and neatly drawn all required features on the map.

For 3 points, the student has correctly drawn all but one of the required features on the map, or has completed the map less neatly.

For 2 points, the student has correctly drawn most of what was asked for in an acceptable manner.

For 1 point, the student has correctly drawn some of the required features on the map.

For 0 points, the student has not drawn any of the required features on the map.

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